Though it won’t be available on bookshelves until March, we were able to get our hands on a preview copy of Grant Achatz’s new memoir, Life, On the Line. Usually chef memoirs are an excellent source of provocative quotes and hilarious tales of debauchery, featuring loads of knives, cussing, and blood; this is not one of those books. Sure, there are a few great quotes, a swear word or two, and a hilarious encounter with Charlie Trotter, but it’s mostly a fairly unsentimental look back at how a kid from Michigan developed the drive to create one of the most distinguished restaurants in the country, and how a very serious bout of cancer nearly tore him down. Most of us know that story, but it was easy to mythologize the process, making his rise seem inevitable. Reading it all in his voice (along with co-author Nick Kokonas), it’s clear that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
If hyperbole seems to be best way to describe his food, precision seems to be the best way to describe the way he approaches cooking. The first chapter may start with a fairly idyllic memory of him making jello with his mom at the age of five, but he doesn’t dwell on those details for long. Mostly he describes working tirelessly at his parent’s restaurant.
We honestly seem to get a better sense of his personality when he describes the process of constructing a 1970 Pontiac GTO from a bunch of old parts that his dad buys for $1,400. The project seems nearly impossible at first, as there are over 50 separate boxes to dig through to create this puzzle. But slowly and meticulously, he builds a muscle car through a combination of intense research and sheer determination.
It dispels the notion that he grew up preordained to become a fine dining chef. He claims to have had no idea what a Michelin star was when he arrived at the CIA after high school. To get into the French Laundry he sent a letter to Thomas Keller every day for two weeks straight. But once he got the job, he didn’t immediately become a star. He actually leaves the restaurant for ten months to work at a winery. He makes every step seem hard and fraught with conflict. And that’s even before the cancer hits. It’s these tales that flesh out the character of Achatz, and what makes the book so fascinating.
If you’re interested, you can pre-order a discounted copy over at Amazon.